Give us the words for a faith called Christian.

November 1st, 2021

As great a challenge as walking with Christ is talking his walk. So Jesus’s disciples pled, “Lord, teach us!” Give us the words to speak to God.

Some faiths may arise from your sweet subjectivity, accompany your birth, occur after secluded meditation, as fruit of walks in the woods, discoveries from human experience, good and bad, or what you’ve learned from your wounds. Christianity isn’t one of them. Nobody is born believing that God is a Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly, and resumed speaking to those who betrayed him. Somebody must give us words that open the doors into the faith called Christian. In submitting to God’s talk to us—allowing ourselves to be addressed by the God we’re unable to love without first being loved, incapable of discovering without being found, inept to speak to without being addressed—God apprehends us. While we were struggling to get our minds around God, surprise: God already had us in mind. Striving to be spiritual—to think, feel, or act rightly, hefting ourselves out of hemmed in humanity—God turned toward us.

No mere projection from either human insecurity or arrogance, knowledge of Christ is not had because we want it. Divine/human conversation is at God’s instigation, God’s initiative, that is, grace: unmerited, unearned, gift of the testimony of the saints, living and dead, an ancient text that talks today, a Sunday sermon that the Holy Spirit commandeered to speak to you, especially you.

The truth about God comes our way through God’s refusal to give up on divine/human colloquy and abandon us to soliloquy. For good reason is Jesus “The Word.” Whoever said, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one,” or “Preach the gospel at all times. If necessary, use words,” it wasn’t Jesus.

Only God talks us into God and, in Jesus Christ, surprise, God does. The God afforded in scripture is loquacious, ubiquitous, a revealing, determined conversationalist who revels not only in being God but also in telling us all about it. Christian language is no more odd or difficult than it has to be on order accurately to describe the God who turns to us as Christ.

“Young man, watch your language,” was an admonition I heard as an adolescent. Christians must mind the words we use. Want to be a Christian? You’ll have to learn the vocabulary and walk the walk that enable these words to make sense. Inarticulacy is no virtue. Once God in Christ turned toward us, self-disclosed, we were forced, like Saul-become-Paul, to radically redefine words like slave, love, or redemption.

Preachers are stewards of our sacred speech, always remembering that Christian words are known, not by definitions in a book but by living in the world, not by explanation and interpretation but by active walking with the Word who gives us words that show we know what we are talking about when we say “God.” If you’ve been a parent who’s taught a child to speak English, or if you’ve done time as a teacher of high school French, pounding French verbs into the heads of recalcitrant youth, it’s no wonder that God has called you to be a curator of Christian speech.

You may want to use this book devotionally, reading an entry each day. At the end of God Turned Toward Us I’ve included “Pathways to Follow” for preachers and teachers looking for ways to communicate the gospel to their congregations, and for individuals and groups, in church and out, pursuing themes and trajectories related to the Christian faith.

Let’s celebrate the words whereby the church teaches us to live with the God who talks to us. God refusing to be confined in divinity, divinity dwindled to infancy, God we would never have made up for ourselves giving us the words for thoughts and lives we would have missed had not God turned toward us.

Available from MinistryMatters

Here unpacked are two words essential to Christian faith and life, right now: Heaven and Hell

Paradise. God with us; we with God, forever.

As Jesus hung on the cross, one of the thieves hanging next to him pled, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” The wretched man was surely thinking of tomorrow. Today, with Jesus in agony on the cross, mocked by a howling mob, deserted by his followers, any promised “kingdom” must be a faraway future. Jesus surprised him: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” You might expect Jesus to say, “Someday—if you truly believe in me, repent and get your life together—you will be with me in paradise. Just you wait.”

No, Jesus said, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” If Jesus had been walking along some Galilean road in the bright sunshine, rather than hanging on a cross under darkening sky, I believe this conversation would have gone the same way. “Paradise” isn’t a place where we might go someday if we are good; it begins today, as Jesus turns toward us and we felons turn toward Jesus. Heaven is more than our time extended and made better; heaven is Jesus giving eternal life to anyone he wants.

Christians believe in eternal life, not based upon who we are or have done—some divine spark, an eternal kernel in us that goes on and on, immortality—but because of what we believe about God. Having raised crucified Jesus, God triumphs over death, giving hope to any who suffer and die. And don’t we all?

“Because I live, you will live too,” not only then and there but here and now.

Many of Jesus’s parables have as their theme, “Ready or not, here comes the kingdom of heaven.” Heaven is both the future of the believer and place from which Jesus will come to judge.

Paul calls us naturalized citizens of heaven. Christians have dual citizenship. “Here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.” We ought not to take this world too seriously. While there’s a “now” and “not yet” quality to heaven, hope of heaven in the future affects life here and now. Learn to be with God now so that you will be ready to live with God forever, says the church. Service in Sunday worship and Monday through Saturday service to the world are rehearsals for when we’ll eternally whoop it up in God’s heavenly choir.

If you think of heaven as an exclusive gated community, take note: heaven is well populated—a vast banquet, a wedding feast, an innumerable multitude convened by God, a city—New Jerusalem—whose limits are unknown to us.

After a lecture, Karl Barth was asked, “Do you think we’ll see again those we love in heaven?” Barth replied, “Yes, I do. And those we hate.”

Heaven is God’s will being done. “I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. . . . Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.” It’s restoration of the relationship with God that we once knew in the garden, now known forever in God’s capacious city.

The Bible doesn’t talk about “going to heaven when you die.” It talks about God remaking this world, a new creation. Christian faith practiced here, now, readies for life when God’s new creation shall be our home.

More Americans are believing in the afterlife while less believe in God—who could deny immortality to people who are so nice? If heaven is being in the eternal presence of God, wouldn’t heaven be hell if you’ve spent your life trying to get rid of God? Those of us who make a living keeping up earthly temples, parish churches, and university chapels are unnerved to learn that in heaven there is no temple. Presumably, there’ll be no priests either because then, everybody’s a priest prancing around God’s altar. God will not dwell in a temple served by a few ecclesiastical functionaries; God will reign throughout the whole city, praised by a multitudinous choir made up of every creature. We won’t need to get dressed and come to a church at an undesirable hour to be with God; God will have gotten to us. As Jesus waltzed into paradise after his resurrection and ascension, surely his Father asked, “What have you got to show for all your trouble and pain? Where are the citizens of your kingdom?” Christ produced as his trophy one slightly informed, somewhat repentant thief.

When we are at last left alone, consumed by the fires of our egotism, the snake eating its tail, at last able to say triumphantly, “I’ll be damned before I’ll let you love me.”

A belief in hell requires a leap of faith. Though there’s little biblical evidence that human stupidity overpowers God’s mercy, maybe it is possible for humans forever to thwart God’s purposes. However, if you have had firsthand experience of God turning toward you, refusing to leave you safe in your loneliness, it’s hard to imagine Jesus saying, “That’s it. I give up. To hell with ’em.”

That’s why we can’t say much for sure about hell, far less than we can say about heaven; our eternal destiny is up to God rather than us. It’s hard to imagine a time or place where ubiquitous God is not. Christians tend to be agnostic about the existence of hell and damnation, not because people are basically good and don’t deserve an eternal thrashing, but because God is eternally resourceful, deep in mercy. That’s why many of the faithful have said, “Hell? No.”

If there is a hell, it must be smaller even than Lichtenstein, considering how much territory is claimed by Jesus. The church has always taught that there was a hell, but has never said who was in it. If the church can’t say for sure that even Judas is in hell, we are justified in the hope that if there is a hell, it could be empty.




In paradise. Luke 23:43.

He wants. John 17:2.

Live too. John 14:19.

Of heaven. Matt 13:31, 33, 44, 45, 47, 52; 20:21.

The believer. 2 Cor 5:1–2; Phil 3:20.

To judge. Rom 10:6; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:16.

Of heaven. Phil 3:20.

To come. Heb 13:14.

Wedding feast. Rev 19:7-10.

Multitude. Rev 7:9.

By God. Heb 11:10.

Their God. Rev 21:1-5.

The garden. Gen 2.

New creation. 2 Cor 5:17.

No temple. Rev 21:22.

Every creature. Rev 7:9.

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